His Father’s Shadow
Lucas lay flat on his back, legs warming in the sun, body shadowed by the greasy mess of Daisy’s underbelly above him. The Chevy had seen better days, had been his father’s before Lucas was ever born – the kind of truck whose clock read in decades, not miles. But she was reliable.
In an on-again, off-again sort of way.
Lucas let his arms fall to the dirt below him, wrench still in hand, frowning at the mess in front of him.
“Why you gotta do this now?” he muttered, fully aware that he was sure to say the same no matter when, exactly, she let him down.
That didn’t make him feel any less betrayed, though.
“Oi! Lucky! Get yer arse on back here!”
The shout was far enough away that it floated on the air, but he knew the lung-power behind it. The Irish have a way of being heard, and his Pa was no exception.
He rolled himself out from underneath the truck, giving it one last forlorn look before he drifted around the side of the house, toward the backyard, scrubbing vainly at his greasy hands as he went.
“Jesus, Pa,” he said, as he rounded the house, “you shoutin for someone back home?”
“Ye cheeky wee shite,” his father replied. He sat with Lucas’ Ma on the shaded porch, around a wooden table that he had built while three sheets to the wind on some day long ago. Both sat with a beer bottle near at hand, more ready to go in the cooler at their feet. His father was already shuffling a deck of cards, and he stopped only to gesture at the free chair, hand still full of half the deck.
“Sit yer wise arse down and play.”
“Alright,” Lucas said, reluctant, the memory of their last game still fresh in his mind. He fetched a beer from the cooler and took a seat. “Deal me in.”
“Time for your big comeback, Lucky Lucas?” his mother asked. “Ain’t living up to your name so much these days.”
His father laughed. “Speaking o’ which, how’s me truck?”
Lucas shook his head. “Ain’t yours no more, remember? But she ain’t doin great, as it happens.”
“Well, I dunno, she gets me around yer whole bloody life, I give her to you and she goes tits up inside o’ two years.”
“She ain’t dead,” Lucas protested. “Just needs to cool off.”
His Ma glanced toward the sky. “That ain’t like to happen sometime soon.”
“Can we just play some feckin cards or no?” his father said.
His Pa dealt him in, and the game began. They never played for cash when Lucas was in the game (a childhood rule he’d long outgrown), but by the end of it they would establish a suitable wager. For Lucas, a win usually meant doing less around the house.
They played a few hands, trading victories between themselves, his Ma slowly taking the edge on chips. Lucas and his father put a stop to it with one victory each. Then there came a few hands in quick succession where Lucas failed to win anything at all.
He got frustrated. They read it, and he lost some more.
His mother won a hand on a two-pair of Aces (he had nothing, and they knew it) before his father won another with a flush.
“Bad hands,” Lucas complained, staring forlorn at a pair and a weak kicker, the fruits of a feeble bluff.
“Ballocks to that,” his Pa said. “No such thing in poker. We got outplayed. Yer Ma’s a devil, so she is.”
“That ain’t true,” Lucas insisted. “The hell am I s’posed to do with a couple sixes?”
“Win,” his Ma said, without sympathy. “Poker ain’t all luck, and it ain’t all skill. That’s life, Lucky. Better get used to it.”
“Yer a Yank anyway, aren’t ye?” his Pa said. “Don’t tell me ye don’t know what Kenny said?”
Lucas looked at him blankly for a moment before it clicked.
“Know when to fold ’em,” he said, “and so on.”
Lucas sucked in a breath, swallowing his frustration, taking a mental reset before they resumed. As the game went on, he found himself tuning into it, taking it slow, making real choices, not just taking whichever thought came to mind. Playing slow, he scored a few more hands. He leaned back in his seat, relaxing, picking an emotion and sticking with it so they wouldn’t see his ups and downs.
Simple, really: you pull the same face for everything, how can anyone figure when you’re feeling everything but?
The change in his demeanor was enough to throw his folks off their game. It wasn’t a miracle cure, but he scraped more wins in the end, eventually driving his Ma out of the game entirely. His Pa seemed to lose his cool in direct proportion to Lucas gathering his.
“Feck it: all in,” his Pa finally said, but with so much tension in his voice that Lucas knew he had the sure thing. Lucas matched the bet, and laid out his hand: two-pair.
“Aces & Eights,” his Ma said, admiring his work. “but I’m reckoning your Pa’s got a little something up his sleeve.”
His Pa showed his cards: two Kings with an Ace in the kicker.
His Ma whistled. “Lucky Lucas.”
“Yeh, the Devil’s fecking own,” his Pa added, when he was done.
Lucas smiled. “Not luck, just skill.”
His mother laughed, and his father launched a few creative insults at him.
His winnings? No chores, and his Pa would pay repairs on Daisy. He pushed himself back from the table, standing to go, and turned away to hide his grin as he heard his father ask his mother for another game, looking to play for cash this time…
Lucas headed indoors, glad for the wash of the AC as he stepped through the door. The phone rang the moment he threw himself on the couch, and Lucas immediately pushed himself back up, grumbling under his breath.
“Hey, O’Connors?” he said, snatching up the receiver.
Lucas clutched the phone reflexively, turning away from the backyard as if that tiny motion could make a difference.
He just about hissed down the line. “Taylor? The hell you doin calling me? How’d you even get my number?”
“There many O’Connors in that one-horse town o’ yours?”
Lucas didn’t reply, feeling stupid, feeling suddenly cold as a chill sweat began to bead on his neck.
“What do you want?” he muttered, caught like a child in the fear of being found red-handed at any second, his folks wandering into the room to trap him in the moment. He craned his head around, trying to see out onto the porch, but near as he could tell they were deep in another hand.
“Friendly palaver,” Taylor said, “What else?”
“Don’t screw around.”
“Hey,” Taylor replied, his voice suddenly hard. “Don’t forget who you’re talking to here. We may have ourselves a relaxed working environment, but I speak for the top dog. Don’t forget it.”
Lucas stayed silent again, the sullen silence of a scolded child.
“We straight?” said Taylor’s voice.
“We’re straight,” Lucas replied, hearing the petulance in his own words.
“Look, kid, we both know this ain’t the usual arrangement, but listen. I got a job for you. Well, more of a meeting, I guess. Word from way up top – now, don’t ask why, ’cause I can’t rightly tell you.”
“But…” Lucas stammered for a response. “Why?”
“I mean…They ain’t ever asked nothing like this before. You know I ain’t in the game. Why me?”
“Why me? Hell, that’s the question gets asked by every poor son-of-a-bitch ever picked for anythin. Some things just happen, kid. You ask me why me, I say why anyone?”
“Look, I know you’re nervy. Would be if I were you. But you ain’t in trouble that I can tell. You done good for us. Maybe the boss has a unique opportunity for you, something bigger’n I can brief you on. Just trust us. Or hey, trust me. I wouldn’t do this if I thought trouble was coming your way.”
“Taylor, I can’t-”
“You got a pen? Something to write on?”
Lucas reacted instinctively to the question, fumbling for materials on the counter.
“Write this down,” Taylor went on, not waiting for an answer, and reeled off an address, a time and date. Lucas scribbled it down automatically. “You got that?”
“Yeah, I got it.”
The back door slammed, and Lucas almost dropped the receiver.
“Gotta go,” Lucas snapped, slamming the phone down. His father was too involved in slipping off his boots to notice, and Lucas swung around into the kitchen. As soon as his father cleared the hall, Lucas ducked into the bathroom, locking the door behind him.
He looked down at the strip of paper in his hands, mourning it like a black spot. A black spot, too, it seemed to form in his future. A few days from now: a giant black hole in his week, his life. A day he couldn’t travel around, or over, a day he could only head straight into, swallowed by a great, unknown nothing.
Sure, he’d had days like that before. Everyone has. But they didn’t usually end with a chance at dying. He knew the game well enough from Taylor’s stories, had always kept to fencing for just that reason.
He felt sick, leaden, like his body wanted him to fall to the earth and stay there, let the day pass him by. But he knew that doing so would only make the situation worse – that was the cruel trick they’d pulled on him, ensuring he would walk to his doom willingly, or at least as willingly as could be.
He slipped the note into his pocket, rinsed his face and hands in the sink. He caught sight of his own reflection: the boyish face, the blond hair, the blue eyes. He didn’t look like Taylor. He didn’t look like one of them.
And he didn’t feel it, either.
21 Years Ago
Elias found God in the old world, which, he would later reflect, felt kind of right. The taste of that country never quite left his tongue, even many long years after, and it resides there still. It’s a taste thick with smoke and blood.
On this day, an old sun burns above them, not so different from the sun burning over Arizona. It beats down hard, unflinching. Extraction is still ten minutes out from their position. Elias’ patrol sits in close formation in the cover of a low hill, keeping watch over their two captives. One of them’s no longer a threat, with a bullet in his leg and one in the gut. The tourniquet around his thigh has slowed the blood to leaking jelly, and for the wound in his gut the field medic has done all he can, which isn’t much. The wounded man’s comrade is bound and gagged, hands and feet, but still he mumbles prayers for his fallen friend, eyes squeezed closed.
Private Freeman and Private Edwards sit side by side, watching the two captives. Edwards is a big man, blond, the natural soldier, but his way with words has given him his nickname – Poet. He lives up to it, too, and spends practically all of his downtime writing letters home, or little stories, or snatches of songs he hums to himself in the night. The squad wears his presence as a badge of honor, a little slice of identity that gives them a heart. For his part Elias is a fresh-faced youth, just like Edwards: barely into his twenties, his dark hair not yet salted with age. With a mixed heritage, he isn’t quite the Aryan ideal that Poet is, and he will never be as big, but he has a fighter’s instincts. Sometimes that’s all it comes down to.
“I’ve been working on a new piece,” Edwards says quietly, into the bizarre stillness between their mission and the coming extraction. “It’s about a man who meets a stranger in the desert, and the stranger turns out to be his own redemption.”
“Yeah? You gonna sing it when it’s done?”
“You know I will. Whether you like it or not.”
The absurdity of their situation dials them back into silence, as they come back to the reality of watching a man bleed to death while Edwards discusses his hobby.
“Christ,” Poet says, eyes fixed on their wounded captive. “Shouldn’t we just put him out of his misery? It’d be a mercy kill.”
The other captive, the healthy one, halts his prayers and begins to fight against his restraints, imploring them with just his eyes, just his bound hands, to help his friend.
“Helo’s on the way, buddy,” Poet says. “We can’t do anything more until it gets here.”
The captive stares at Poet for a moment longer.
“Y’understand?” Elias adds. “You get what he’s saying? We gotta wait. Evac’s en route.” He points to the sky. “Helicopter.”
The young man’s eyes go to the sky, full of new hope.
“Now you got it,” Elias says.
The injured man’s writhing has slowed, the blood from his leg coming thicker. On his way out, Elias knows. Whether the helicopter will get here in time, he has no idea. He feels sorry for them, really. His enemy are victims of circumstance, and little more.
The healthy one starts to pray again, mumbling against his gag even louder than before.
“Shut the fuck up!” Ryans yells from the other side of the circle, catching a reprimand from their squad leader.
“Not like you’d stay quiet if it was one of us,” Elias mutters. He shakes his head, distracts himself by picking caked dirt off his rifle, listening to the rise and fall of the desperate prayer. It’s almost hypnotic.
“Maybe they’re the lucky ones,” Poet says. Elias follows his line of sight, finding that Poet’s eyes still linger on the wounded man.
“Lucky how?” he says, not finding a whole lot there.
“Look at him. As far as he’s concerned, his God’s a fact. In his mind he may as well be calling a medical center.”
“You not a believer?”
“Not me. Seen too much shit for that. Even if I thought God was real, don’t think he’d notice us, or care. He’d be way too big for that.”
“Omniscient,” Elias says, buffing the rifle with his sleeve. “It’s sorta in the word that we can’t be too small for him.”
“We must seem so lost in their eyes. When you watch them praying, something about it just feels so right. Like that’s the way things are supposed to be, and we’re getting it wrong. And then I think about it some more and it goes the other way, like we’re awake and they’re asleep. God never picks up a gun, that’s for sure.”
“Men win battles, God wins wars,” Elias replies, not even sure where the words come from, or even if he makes them up on the spot.
“Maybe so. How about you, Cowpoke? You believe in God?”
Elias’ eyes wander before he replies; to the sky, to the POWs, to the distant pillar of smoke on the horizon.
“My folks raised me to,” he says. “My mother was never deep into it, but my father…Ah, my father…” He heaves out a sigh. “My father was as devout as they come. I guess I got some issues there.”
“Sorry, I shouldn’t have–”
Eli waves it off. “My dad was a drunk. He treated me and mom just fine, but at the end of the month there was no money for food, for clothes, for anything but his drink. When he’d swigged every last drop of his paycheck, he used to pull us in close, me and my brother, and say…’God’ll keep us on our feet, don’t you worry. God shines his light on every man.’ Seemed awful dark in my father’s shadow, though.”
“Don’t worry about it. Long time ago. Short story is I still believe, just…not really sure what in.”
He looks again at the two POWs, listening to the man’s gibberish prayer. Even in the captive’s desperation, he sees what it is that Poet idealizes. There’s a strange kind of liberty to putting faith in something else, beyond the grounded fact of the matters at hand.
“Maybe I’ll know what to believe if I get out of this goddamn country alive,” Elias says.
The Black Hawk soon appears on the horizon, nothing more than a speck at first, but before long it grows, taking the form of the chariot of the heavens they had been waiting for. The wounded captive is alive, for now, and they haul him onto the chopper along with his comrade. A moment later they’re in flight, lifted out of the dirt by a greater force.
Elias feels something binding them then, something in the sand, something in the sky, knows there’s more to life than he’s ever dared believe. And dare, he reasons, is the right word. To give in so utterly and let one’s self be carried by a greater force – it requires the courage to fall, and to be caught.
That’s when he understands the God his father had been talking about. The trust that there is something bigger than any one person, standing with them, around them, between them and over them. It is everything. Their captive’s prayer was not a call to the emergency room, but a mantra, a belief that the bigger picture could humble the horror of the moment.
That was how Elias found God in the old world, and found that God didn’t look like a person. God looked like a situation; a handful of men a long way from home, two prisoners of war betrayed by the geopolitics of their homeland, and a Black Hawk helicopter, there to take them all someplace else. God was the bigger picture.
The biggest picture of all.
The small truck rattled to a stop at the foot of a hill. Lucas climbed out, sparing a moment to glance around. A black sedan sat nearby, metal clicking in the heat as it expanded. Beyond that there was nothing but the parched earth, and the small hill, his yellow truck the most interesting sight for miles. Good thing he had got her running again, he decided.
Well, kind of a good thing.
He pulled a sour expression as the anxiety rose inside of him. The doubts had been there since the moment he had looked up the address, turning up nothing but a dot on the landscape, barely enough to register on any map. And who could he tell where he was going? Who would expect him back?
A narrow dirt path wound up the hill, toward its invisible crest. He followed it now, no choice but to go ahead with whatever it was, wondering again how he had come to find this mess. Couldn’t a fella be let alone to hawk a few stereos and call it a day? Why’d they feel a driving need to pull him any further into their affairs?
But when it came to it, you didn’t disobey when the Dogs said jump. Taylor was full of stories. He couldn’t count the number that had featured words like “teeth”, like “eyes”, and the word “break” showed up often, too. It wasn’t truly himself he fretted for, but for Ma and Pa back home, for their health, but also what they would think of Lucky Lucas, should he come to a messy end. Should they ever even find out.
He muttered a few words beneath his breath, the ghost of a prayer, as he walked.
He crested the top of the hill, finding there a small yard, circled with the rotting shadow of a fence. Within the enclosure, a scattering of gravestones stood, canted and chipped like old teeth, placed so irregular that it scarcely even seemed a burial ground, more a place where some tired folks had stopped to lay down the dead, honor them as best they could before moving on.
It looked to be empty, and he moved forward, pushing open a gate that had no latch, the hinges creaking with age. He walked between the stones, and it came to him then that maybe this was a message, that he had failed the Dogs in some way so complete that they had seen fit to lead him straight to a graveyard.
He wracked his brain, looking to find a reason. How could he have caused them any trouble? He was small, forgettable, nothing to anyone, and Perdition was on the edge of nowhere.
With a sudden flutter of his heart, he realized he wasn’t alone.
She knelt in the dirt, so hunched in on herself as to be almost invisible between the stones. Her head was bowed before a tombstone that looked newer than the others, upright, its epitaph not yet faded with age.
For a moment he wondered what to do, whether to approach or leave her be. He wondered if he might be in the wrong place after all.
She turned her head.
“Sorry, ma’am,” he said, “didn’t mean to cause you no bother.”
She looked at him with eyes hollowed by grief, a face that care had turned cold. For a time she only stared, and he fought the urge to apologize again, wondering whether he ought to leave her in whatever peace she had.
Which wasn’t much – he could see that plain.
“You aren’t bothering me,” she said at length, her voice tired but flatly professional. A lawyer kind of voice, he decided. The woman rose gracefully, dusting off her knees as she went. She looked him over again. “You’re young.”
He could see now that she was older than he first thought, though she wore it well. Her hair suited her voice: dark, cut to a short side-part. Professional. Her face was a mirrored pond of neutrality.
“Old enough to cause my folks a headache,” he said, finding the truth in the words even as he spoke them.
Her smile was thin, gracing her eyes only briefly. “They understand how lucky they are, I’m sure.”
He chuckled. “Funny you say that. My folks named me Lucas. Call me Lucky Lucas, even now.”
“And is it true?”
He frowned, thinking it over. “Y’know, sometimes I just ain’t sure.”
“Some few of us are lucky,” she replied. “Some few of us aren’t. Most of us lie somewhere in between.”
She looked down at the grave that lay at her feet.
“I’m sorry,” he said again, finding that he had almost forgotten where they stood.
She shook her head, another motion so subtle he scarcely saw it, and met his eyes again.
“No,” she replied, sterner now, as if admonishing herself. “It’s a pain you’re too young to know. I wouldn’t expect you to understand.”
“Ain’t like I never lost no one,” he said.
“Not like this, you haven’t,” she replied, and then checked herself. “I didn’t mean to compare. It’s just…different. That’s all.”
He bit down on the urge to apologize again, not knowing this time what he was sorry for, too afraid now to ask.
“Who did you lose?” she asked, sparing him.
“My grandpa,” he replied, suddenly finding the face of his grandfather in his thoughts for the first time in years. “I musta been fifteen, hit me real hard. Wouldn’t talk to a soul near a week. Said to my Ma I’d never talk again, way of respectin him.”
“And what did she say to that?”
“Told me ’bout the way my grandpa had when I was a young’un of making me loud just as my folks got me quiet. He’d always have some trick up his sleeve, make me get all excitable just when they wanted me calm. Drove my Ma crazy.”
“That’s funny,” she said softly.
“Figured I was doin him a disservice after that. Y’know. Being loud was a better way to remember him by.”
“Fifteen,” she said, her eyes distant. “That must be like yesterday to you.”
“Really?” he replied. “Seems like a million years ago.”
“Is that right?” She was almost laughing now. “I hardly remember being fifteen.” Her smile died away. “It gets harder. The older you become, the worse it feels when you’re robbed of something you worked so hard to earn. And then comes the time when you realize it will be you, one day. Or maybe you’ll be one of the lucky ones, and hold on long enough to lose everything while you still live.”
Lucas stayed silent, only listening. He had never thought of it that way, and now the thought of it made him vaguely sick.
“Death is like a stone in your shoe,” she added. “It seems worse with every step.” She shook her head again in that small way. “But listen to me. I’m rambling. You didn’t come here for this.”
Lucas glanced around at the stones arrayed at their feet.
“Tell the truth, lady, I don’t know why I am here.”
“Maybe you were called here,” she said.
He nodded. “Well, yeah. I’m pretty sure that’s true.”
She stretched out a black-gloved hand. Lucas shook it.
“Rayne,” she said.
“Lucas,” he replied, and resisted the urge to slap himself on the head, remembering that she already knew his name. Before he could say another word, he caught the sound of an engine behind him. He turned to look away down the hill as a white van pulled up beside his Daisy and the black sedan.
How busy could a tumbledown graveyard get, he wondered – though he kept the thought to himself.
“Finally,” Rayne said.
He turned and looked for her expression, but found only that impassive lawyer’s face again.
“Don’t worry,” she added, “they’re expecting you.”
His reply died in his throat as he turned in time to watch five men unload from the van.
All were in black. Each wore a white scarf tied around his neck. Each had his hair cropped short.
Lucas turned at a motion beside him, in time to see Rayne slip a strip of white cloth from her purse and tie it around her own throat. He backed away from the gate instinctively, wanting to run, knowing there was nowhere to go but back down the hill toward the strangers.
“Don’t panic,” Rayne said. “You’re not in any trouble.”
The five men reached the top of the hill, four of them following the first in a loose formation, as one follows a man who knows the way. Lucas tensed as their leader stepped through the gate, but the stranger brushed past him, moving straight toward Rayne to draw her into a warm embrace.
“Sister,” he said.
“Dearest brother,” she replied.
They broke the embrace, and the man turned toward Lucas. It was then that Lucas recognized him.
“Lucas O’Connor,” the man said, smiling. “The sun of the day to you.”
“I know you,” Lucas replied, finally sure of it. “Yeah, I knew I knew you. You’re that guy who came to town, asked me all that stuff about Eli and Doc.”
The man Doc asked me about, he didn’t say. The man he thought mighta did for Eli.
And it came back to him now, his conversation with Taylor, how he had been asked by the Dogs to keep an ear out for news of Doc’s comings and goings.
“You were very hospitable,” the man said, and he extended his hand. Lucas shook it warily. “You’re nervous?”
“Thought I was meetin with the Dogs,” Lucas replied, trying to understand.
“Not this time,” the man said. “but you might call them mutual friends. They were kind enough to arrange for us to have this conversation.”
“Kind, huh?” Lucas replied. “This still seems shady as all hell to me.”
The man smiled.
“Not my intention, I assure you. You’ve helped me this far. I only ask that you extend the favor a little further.”
Lucas watched alone at the top the hill as they climbed back into their van, the door rattling shut behind them. The woman disappeared into her black sedan, and together the two vehicles rumbled down the path, back toward the highway.
He lingered there for a moment longer, listening to the silence of the place, the gap in the song of the world it formed. On a sudden impulse he moved toward the grave where the woman had knelt, his boots crunching on the dry earth as he tried not to think of the expired lives that lay beneath his feet. He tried, also, not to think of the words Rayne had said, how life had all the permanence of a desert breeze.
He looked down at the grave. It was maintained well, and the name was clear, still carved deep in the stone. As his eyes caught the words he froze, mind racing, struggling to look away. When he finally did, it was to look away down the hill, at the two vehicles vanishing into the distance. But it wasn’t the vehicles he saw – just the after-image burned into his mind of those words on the stone:
Who went but a short time on Earth
For God chose him to walk in Heaven